BBC Radio Four. Champion of cool rationality

May 8, 2014

While other media succumb to cheesiness, Radio Four remains a bastion of rationality

Yesterday, I combined business with pleasure, listening to Radio Four, driving to the metropolis of downtown Bramhall for early morning coffee, and thinking about a rewrite to a chapter in a textbook on leadership and rationality.

Radio Four remains a bastion for cool unemotional broadcasting. Even the most dreadful event is communicated with the minimum of fuss from Radio Four World.

If I want cheesiness…

If I want cheesiness, Radio Five is a button away. Radio Five World has cornered the market in the sort of personal hardship stories which are banned from Radio Four.

Back on Four, I hear the reassuringly rational tones of a national treasure who has been broadcasting for many a decade. She is in conversation with someone from the Empire. Sorry, I mean The Commonwealth.

Her guest is a creative artist whose work involves the indigenous culture of New Zealand. Talk turns to the expression of Maori culture through rugby, and its ferocious team performance of the Hakka before matches.

“And this Hakka. What’s it all about?”

“It’s a kind of war dance.”

“War dance!?” [Rationality alert.]

“The chanting and rhythmic stamping of feet bond the players into a team”

“Ah. That all seems very rational.” [ A relieved interviewer is audibly more relaxed.] The conversation was not drifting beyond the boundaries of the Dominant Rational Model.

Meanwhile, on Radio Five

I switch to Radio Five Live. An empathic interviewer is sharing the distress of a mother whose child is being bullied by Face-Book Trolls.


21st Century Leadership: the jury is out [part 2]

May 1, 2014

Venus ascendingThe judge continues his summing up by examining the evidence brought before the court of five emerging trends in 21st Century Leadership

Members of the jury. I will complete my summing-up this morning and then provide you with final instructions which you are to follow in reaching your verdict.

I turn first to the five emerging theories brought before this court as relevant to leadership in the 21st century. Before I do that I will comment on the uniqueness of the five theories. In this respect I am reminded of an ancient authority who said that there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, each of these ‘new’ theories has connections with earlier theories, and may be seen as emergent of the old with new definitions. You must not become confused by such labels. I will offer a working definition and a few brief notes on each theory paying particular attention to connections with the Dominant Rational Model of Leadership

First we heard about Level 5 leadership. This is considered a style which is characterized by personal humility and fierce resolve. The theory presents itself as evidence that Level 5 leaders are more successful than charismatic leaders in comparable situations. This is seen as evidence we are moving towards a post-charismatic understanding of leadership effectiveness. I should add that the major study of Level 5 leadership reported to us applied the scientific methodology of establishing rational proof. This makes its approach modern and supporting the dominant rational model, rather than post-modern and challenging it.

The second emerging theory, is Distributed Leadership. As implied in its name, Distributed Leadership is a theory about sharing of leadership responsibilities. This description is close to the roles and structuring found in in the older models of scientific management. Witness statements were provided from contemporary sports teams, musical ensembles and military tactical teams. Distributed leadership was presented mostly as a strictly rational approach. However, business practitioners also mentioned the benefits of fostering team spirit and initiative, leading to ’empowered’ team participants acting beyond formally designated leadership roles. You may conclude that such considerations go beyond a totally rational explanation of the theory

The third emerging theory is Trust-based Leadership. Trust-based leadership has become popular among consultants and practicing leaders as we heard from the witness statements. The special feature of trust-based leadership is achieving results through gaining trust of colleagues and the wider network of social contacts. As described my practitioner leaders, trust based leadership appears as an instrumental approach to achieving a leader’s goals. This was described by the academic Joseph Rost as typical of the technological and rational belief system of much of 20th century leadership. In other words, the belief systems of advocates of trust-based leadership are strongly influenced by the dominant rational model.

The fourth emerging theory is that of Creative Leadership. A creative leader is someone who stimulates creative outcomes in others through a style encouraging change and innovation. An important aspect of creative leadership is that it helps overcome dilemmas in decision-making by escaping ‘either-or’ thinking. Creative leadership is a challenge to purely rational approaches and as with trust-based leadership can be traced to pre-modern theories such as charismatic leadership.

The fifth emerging theory is Positive Leadership Positive Leadership promotes positive self-image as a means of personal development. It is based on the positive psychology movement, which itself can be traced to humanistic psychology. The style is affirmative, encouraging and celebrating success. It is regarded with suspicion by many authorities of cognitive psychology who remain more closely wedded to models of internal mental constructions. Put simply, Positive Leadership challenges the dominance of rational models of psychology and of leadership.

You will have to examine each theory in turn and explore how it relates to the dominance of the rational model of leadership. Before you retire to begin that task, I intend to summarize one more set of witness statements. These were five other leadership themes which were mentioned more briefly in the evidence provided in this trial. They may nevertheless turn out to be highly significant in your deliberations. I suggest we take a short break, after which I will complete by summing up with reference to these five theories.

Witness Statements

British Quality Foundation: Leading with Vision, Inspiration and Integrity

To be concluded


21st Century Leadership: the jury is out

April 29, 2014

The jury is out on the emerging leadership maps of the 21st century. In this first report, we hear the summing up by the judge dealing with the evidence of the rise of rational belief systems from the time of Plato to the 18th century enlightenment and beyondThe Judge

Members of the jury. You have the responsibility to evaluate the credibility of the case for and against the leadership theories of the 21st century. To do so, you have to assess the accounts of witnesses brought forward by the prosecution and the defense. The theories placed before you are: Level 5 leadership, Distributed leadership, trust-based leadership, creative leadership, positive leadership, authentic leadership, sustainability leadership, discursive leadership, visionary leadership, charismatic leadership, and transformational leadership,

The theories brought before you are those that have become more powerful since the start of the millennium. Before I summarize the evidence, I believe it will be helpful if I outline the historical background to these theories, and particularly the influence of the dominant rational model, accused of being the ring leader of the entire group.

You will recall hearing from several witnesses that the influential leadership theories of the 20th century were broadly considered to be based on a dominant belief system in the effectiveness of rational actions informed by rational reasoning. That is to say, leadership was the execution of rational behaviours by rational actors.

The advocates of rationality have pointed to the great advances made through application of such rational behaviours for over two millennia. Two thousand years, members of the jury. Rationality, it has been claimed, was worked out as a means of establishing truths about the material world, and the worlds of science and mathematics. Many centuries later a new philosophic approach to rationality was worked out which claimed it to be the key that unlocked human consciousness from a state of ignorance or unenlightened beliefs. You heard the philosopher Immanuel Kant state that [I quote] “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” In other words, enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act.

The French academician René Descartes gave evidence of his rationalist system of philosophy and of the objectivity which reveals reality. The Enlightenment is sometimes called “the Age of Reason”. Its leading philosophers followed Descartes’s attempts to deal with the issue of objectivity and the reality of what we perceive and believe to be true.

The enlightenment ushered in an age of rationality and modernity as science and the scientific methods of analysis helped in the advances in industrial practices. An age of modernity in thinking and creating had replaced earlier less enlightened ages.

By the 20th century, the scientific approach of rationality, if I may use a popular expression, appeared to be the only show in town. As I have explained it, I have not yet made an important point. The rational model has indeed been dominant for over two centuries. Dominant but not, if I am to be precise, utterly without rivals. There were other shows in town, and it is witnesses of these that were introduced by the prosecution, who argue that they remain muted as evidence of the excessive power being wielded by the dominant rational model in leadership theorizing.

I will now move to the ten theories and the evidence of the influence of the dominant rational model.

[To be continued with the judge’s summing up of the ten theories]

Level 5 leadership,
Distributed leadership,
trust-based leadership,
creative leadership,
positive leadership,
authentic leadership,
sustainability leadership,
discursive leadership,
visionary leadership,
charismatic leadership,
transformational leadership.

Expert witness statements

Matheson, Carl, “Historicist Theories of Rationality“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Bristow, William, “Enlightenment“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),


“We the people”. Where’s the evidence that transformational leadership works?

November 25, 2013

Dr John Keane

Since the 1980s, leadership texts place transformational leadership at the centre of the new leadership movement. Is the theory supported in practice?

Like many leadership teachers, my lectures refer the new leadership movement as the major change in theoretical thinking. It was introduced around the 1980s, and places emphasis on vision, innovative change, and the transformation of organizations and individuals. It succeeded in challenging the older ideas in which leadership was rather easily muddled up with effective management plus a dash of mysterious charisma and inspiration. Early work frequently referred to John F Kennedy whose death fifty years ago we remember this week [Nov 21st 2013].

I’ll start with examining the possibility of transformational change through political leaders in the west who are considered transformational.

The Thatcher vision

The 1980s in the UK were the Thatcher years. She would be the most obvious example of a visionary leader. The Telegraph offered a succinct and plausible definition: “to release the repressed aspirations of millions of ordinary people”. Advocates of transformational leadership could argue that Margaret Thatcher helped change the aspirations of millions of ordinary people. Others would argue that the transformation has not resulted in more noble aspirations or a more widespread capacity to reflect on personal beliefs and values. That is hardly a surprising conclusion, but arguably it lies at the heart of transformational leadership’s capacity to transform people as well as systems.

The Reagan Vision

Margaret Thatcher’s political soul mate in America was Robert Reagan. He held steadfastly to a vision of a world in which the ‘evil empire’ of the [then] Soviet Union would be defeated and transformed into a democratic society. The Soviet Union did crumble. Again, the vision has been partially fulfilled in the structural sense, but it is hard detect evident that the legacy of Reagan has transformed beliefs.

The transformation of societies and organizations

By the end of the decade, Francis Fukuyama had declared a victory of democracy through the advance of science and rationality and decline of dictatorships. His prediction now seems somewhat exaggerated.

Fast forward

In America, the beliefs of “we the people” today seem to be far from transformed by the heirs to Reagan. Efforts to achieve the changes in President Obama’s “can do” vision stall in what is increasingly seem as a dysfunctional political system.

In the UK this year at her death [2013] Margaret Thatcher was seen as a towering figure who achieved structural changes that many of her political opponents are pleased enough not to attempt to reverse.

The people of Russia appear to be ‘untransformed’ enough to prefer the old style strong-man leadership of Putin over the Social Democratic ideas of the 1980s which appear to have been President Gorbachev’s more transformational vision.

In America, the beliefs of “we the people” seem to be far from transformed by the heirs to Reagan.

The non-transformation of the people

I listen a lot to the publicly-expressed views of leaders. I hear how their visions will transform the broader groups whom they seek to influence. I listen to the views and beliefs expressed by those broader groups.

Should we have a vision non-proliferation movement?

Political leaders speak as one with our business leaders in expressing their visions. Political and business leaders are failing to win the confidence and trust of their constituents. Perhaps we need a vision non-proliferation movement.

The author is a writer and researcher into leadership theory and practice. The views expressed are his own.


Scientific custard and the dominant rational model of management

December 7, 2012

CustardA festive tale of custard, scientific management, and a British obsession since the days of Charles Dickens

Management as taught is very much a subject grounded in rationality. It attracts those approving of practice informed by scientific methodology. As the festive season approaches, I am reminded of a story.

The science of management

Someone I knew as a schoolboy returned from his first science class bringing good news to his family. In future, he announced, there would be a modern scientific approach to making the family custard, which he would supervise.

The experiment abandoned

After several less-than-successful attempts at home, he quietly abandoned his efforts. His mother reverted to making custard in her unscientific way which somehow turned out all right. Undaunted, the schoolboy continued his studies and become a research scientist, still believing in the universal virtues of the scientific method.

A brief history of custard

For those unaware of the British obsession with custard go Google which will provide you with much useful information. Here’s the Guardian’s take:

[Custard is] a lumpen, pustular, gungy memory of a smelly school canteen. In Britain, childhood and custard go hand in lollipop-lady hand. I know of no better food to calm a choleric toddler or mollify a stroppy seven-year-old than a knocked-up bowl of Bird’s. It comforts like mum and a blanket. [In Oliver Twist ]Mr Bumble’s orphans cry to have it with cold jelly, and who could blame them?

The word ‘custard’ comes from ‘croustade’, a sweet and eggy ‘crusted’ tart from the Middle Ages. Around the 16th century the filling became a dish in its own right, and has changed little since save for the Great Custard Split of 1837, when Clarence Bird developed a cornflour-based custard powder for his allergy-prone wife. A face splatted in custard pie has been a trope of farce almost since the birth of cinema.

Cultural analysis welcomed.